Social Media and Mental Health

There has been increasing interest recently in the effects of social media and other technology use on our health, and in particular, mental health. While these technologies can be tremendously helpful in keeping us connected with loved ones and friends, particularly during the pandemic, there is a body of evidence suggesting that use of these platforms can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. Here’s one example of a study that found an association between higher Facebook use and lower feelings of wellbeing. This may be related to comparing ourselves to others or feeling like we have wasted time by scrolling.

Why are we driven to use social media despite its possible down sides? Theories have been presented that social media may have addictive potential. Social media can activate brain release of dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter is linked to activities that give us pleasure including food, sex and socializing. Getting “likes” on social media gives us this little burst of dopamine but this can also lead to addiction-like behaviour. And when we don’t receive this positive feedback, it can have negative impacts on mood and self-esteem. “Fear of missing out” can also lead to compulsive use. The is also evidence that we over-estimate how we will feel as a result of using social media – we predict that it will make us feel better but may in fact feel worse.

Social media can also have indirect impacts on our physical and mental health by using time that could be spent for sleep, exercise or lower-tech human interaction. A recent review of research studies found connections between higher social media use with lower offline community interaction, lower academic performance and relationship problems.

So, what can you do?

  1. Get informed about the risk of social media use and understand the ways that these powerful corporations are working to keep you hooked. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”.
  2. Track your use. Most phones have an option to view your usage of different social media apps. Increasing awareness of the time spent and following trends over time can help us change behaviour.
  3. Make it less convenient to use these apps and websites. For example, check your notification settings. You can disable notifications so that these apps don’t distract you from your day. Consider having the sites “forget” your passwords so that you need to type it in each time. Even small changes that increase the effort required to access these sites can be a deterrent.
  4. Take technology breaks. Depending on how connected you are now, you might need to start slowly. Maybe take an hour off once per week (if you pair this with being active outdoors, you get an additive benefit). You could work up to taking a day off or even a little technology holiday occasionally. There is evidence that taking a break from social media can improve life satisfaction and well-being!
  5. Notice how you are using technology. I’ve spoken with many patients who reach for their phone or click to a website when they are feeling down, anxious or overwhelmed. Given what we know about the effects of these technologies on mood, this might not be the best strategy. Consider other self-regulating strategies that you could use in these moments that help you to cope with strong emotions instead of distracting from them. These might include breathing exercise or moving your body.
  6. Reach out if need support on managing your relationship with technology and social media. Boundary setting and accountability can be helpful in breaking tough patterns of behaviour.